It's always puzzled us why a brand as normally cutting edge as Loewe should have failed to launch a TV with an integrated digital tuner.So it's with a sense of anticipation that we look at this 26in Spheros R 26 IDTV.

Spheros TVs are classed under Loewe's 'Reference'category,so it's no surprise to find the R 26's build quality and looks hitting genuine benchmark standards.Stunning.

Connectivity continues the theme by including HDMI,component video jacks,and one for a PC on top of the usual Scart and S-video alternatives. There's also a CAM slot for adding extra functionality - such as Top Up TV - along with its digital tuner.

The HDMI and component jacks raise the prospect of this screen being HD Ready - and happily the Spheros offers a native widescreen resolution of 1366 x 768 and compatibility with all the key HD formats.

A search for further interesting features,though,raises a shock:no support for Freeview's 7-day electronic programme guide.But thankfully,this isn't a terminal situation,since Loewe assures us that the EPG will arrive via a broadcast software upgrade by the end of January at the latest.

A largely unsuccessful extended search for further features uncovers another disappointment,too: an over-complicated onscreen menu structure,and a nasty 'rocker-ball' menu navigator on the remote.

The Spheros R 26's performance puts us right back in high spirits,however. Particularly stunning is the picture's sharpness.Every last pixel of a true high-def source is immaculately visible.Even more startling is the definition and clarity the TV manages even with standard off-air Freeview channels.What's more,there appears to be hardly any grain or dot crawl.

Colours are sensational too.Peak saturations look incredibly solid and rich,while subtler tones look natural, subtly blended,and perfectly shaded.

The picture enjoys exceptional depth,too,thanks to these colour subtleties,and unusually (for a small screen) deep black levels that avoid almost entirely the common problems of greying over or blue undertones.

Elsewhere motion is handled impeccably,with no significant smear,judder or blurring.

In fact we spotted only one incy wincy picture problem: minor pools of spillage from the backlight creeping into the image's bottom corners.But these could be specific to our review sample,and we'd estimate they became visible for barely one per cent of our testing.

Sonically the Spheros R 26 is a chip off the old Loewe block.The bass,fully rounded treble,soundstage width,rich dialogue and expansive mid-range help it to deliver as fine an audio performance as we've heard on a 26in TV.

Ultimately,the Loewe Spheros R 26 is something of a conundrum.On the one hand it's a touch expensive,and its operating system and 'rocker-ball' remote control are almost wilfully unhelpful.On the other hand,its build quality is imperious and its all-round performance peerless.So whether you take the plunge or not probably depends on whether you're or not well-heeled enough for money to be no object in the pursuit of quality.